Intercepted Podcast: Mike Pence Is the Koch Brothers’ Manchurian Candidate

Jane Mayer exposes the Koch-brother puppet masters behind Mike Pence. Ai Weiwei talks about his film, “Human Flow.” Plus, new music from Deerhoof.

Photos: The Manchurian Candidate 1962, Getty Images (Pence) Photo Illustration: Elise Swain for The Intercept

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Over the past week, there has been intense focus on what exactly happened to four U.S. commandos killed in Niger, and what they were doing there. Jeremy explains how the media and Capitol Hill reaction is either a symbol of complete incompetence or a crass act of political theater. This week on Intercepted: Investigative journalist Jane Mayer exposes the Koch-brother puppet masters behind Vice President Mike Pence’s rise to power and lays out how the merging of radical extremist Christian ideology and the ruthless pursuit of corporate profits put Pence a heartbeat from the presidency. Chinese dissident and renowned artist Ai Weiwei has released a massive public art installation across New York City as his new film, “Human Flow,” hits theaters. We speak to Ai about the humanitarian catastrophe of the 65 million globally displaced migrants and refugees who have fled terror groups, U.S. and Russian bombs, and climate change. He also shares his thoughts on Trump and talks about his own persecution in China. We end with Deerhoof‘s Greg Saunier on the songs of the album “Mountain Moves,” and the power of creativity in the era of Trump.

An exclusive first look at Deerhoof’s new music video for “I Will Spite Survive,” directed by Geoff Hoskinson, is below:

Jeremy Scahill: Hey, everybody this is Jeremy, again and I’m just popping in here at the beginning of the show to say thank you to everyone who has become a sustaining member of Intercepted. We have just been astonished at the level of support that has poured in.

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All right I’m going to shut up right now. On with the show.

[Musical interlude]

Ramon Padilla: Ladies and gentlemen, I have the honor of introducing President George W. Bush. [scattered claps]

George W. Bush: Oh hey! Thank you all. Thank you. Ok! Padilla!

Will Ferrell As Ricky Bobby: Hi.

George W. Bush: Gracias.

RB: I’m here to talk to you about the packs of stray dogs that control most of the major cities in North America.

GWB: This effort is broad, systemic, and stealthy.

RB: If you see a stray dog, don’t call the authorities. Approach it on your own, with a rope or a broom stick.

George W. Bush: Ultimately, this assault won’t succeed. [scattered applause]

RB: Stray dogs, they’re not your friend. Or they could be.

George W. Bush: With God’s help. Thank you.

Joe Scarborough: George W. Bush loves his country.

Fernand Amandi: President Bush now, and the extended Bush family, are acting as the conscience for the country.

Male newscaster: Nearly 461,0000 men, women and children died in Iraq.

Anushay Hossain: Only Trump can make you feel nostalgic for the Bush era.

Nancy Pelosi: I wish he were president now. I wish Mitt Romney were president. I wish John McCain were president.

Joe Scarborough: Who the hell would ever boo George W. Bush?

[“Who’s the Boss?” TV Theme Song]

[Musical interlude]

JS: This is intercepted.

[Musical interlude]

JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City, and this is episode 33 of Intercepted.

Gen. Joseph Dunford: We owe the families as much information as we can find out about what happened, and we owe the American people an explanation of what their men and women were doing at this particular time. And, when I say that, I mean the men and women in harm’s way anywhere in the world, that they should know what the mission is and what we’re trying to accomplish when we’re there.

JS: Over the past week, there’s been an intense focus on what exactly happened to four U.S. soldiers in the African nation of Niger on October 4th. What we have been told is very little and what we’ve been told is based on information provided by the military and by the Trump Administration.

And what that picture looks like, as of now, is that a small group of Special Operations forces were on a sensitive mission in Niger. That they were traveling in so-called soft vehicles, meaning non-armored vehicles and that they were ambushed.

And during this ambush, three U.S. soldiers were killed, two others were seriously wounded and another soldier, Sergeant La David Johnson, went missing and his body was not recovered until a couple of days later.

Now, what the exact nature of that mission was, or why they were in an armored vehicle, we do not know yet.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis: And the loss of our troops is under investigation. We, in the Department of Defense, like to know what we’re talking about before we talk. And so, we do not have all the accurate information yet.

JS: In classic Donald Trump form, he has made the story about something other than “what were they doing there?”

Donald J. Trump: I was —Look I’ve called many people, and I would think that every one of them appreciated it. I was very surprised to see this, to be honest.

JS: He has attacked the widow of Sergeant Johnson after she publicly said that she was shocked when Trump appeared to not know her husband’s name when he called her to offer his condolences. The president, she said:

Myeshia Johnson: He knew what he signed up for. But it hurts anyways. And I was — it made me cry because I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he said it. He couldn’t remember my husband name. The only way he remembered my husband name because he told me he had my husband’s report in front of him. And that’s when he actually said, La David.

JS: Which, on the surface, sounds like a very callous thing to say to a widow. Trump, for his part says that he meant nothing but respect, and that it was a dignified conversation.

Trump and his allies have cast aspersions on Johnson’s widow as well as on her Congresswoman Frederica Wilson of Florida. Some of the attacks on the congresswoman have been vile, with one of Trump’s sons saying on Twitter that she looks like a stripper. Real classy.

But aside from the horrible attacks on a Gold Star widow or these grotesque attacks on the appearance of Congresswoman Frederica Wilson that have been emanating from the administration or from the president’s family or from his prominent supporters, this episode, meaning what happened in Niger and then the way that it has been covered in the media and discussed by politicians, it’s actually a classic example of how covert U.S. operations are dealt with in general in the United States, both in the media and on Capitol Hill.

You have senators and congressmen rushing to microphones to question what were we doing in Niger? Why with the troops there? If you’re a Democrat, it’s: What was Donald Trump doing sending U.S. troops into Niger? And these congressmen feign ignorance as to the extent of the U.S. military footprint across the globe, particularly those Congress members that are on military committees or intelligence committees or oversight committees. They know exactly how extended U.S. military operations are across this world. So, this level of feigned ignorance: it’s either a symbol of total incompetence as lawmakers, or it’s a despicable act of partisan or political theater.

Since 9/11, the United States has embraced the concept that Donald Rumsfeld famously sketched out in one of his snowflake memos that the world is a battlefield, and that the U.S. has the right to send its commandos wherever, whenever, to kill whomever.

Donald Rumsfeld: We are in a sense, seeing the definition of a new battlefield in the world. The 20th, 21st century battlefield.

JS: and the US has been doing this since George W. Bush, but through Barack Obama and through Donald Trump, with essentially no meaningful oversight or investigation from the U.S. Congress except when something goes wrong.

Listen to this: in 2009, the U.S. Special Operations Command had its forces deployed in sixty countries around the world. By the time Donald Trump was elected president, that number had swelled to 138 countries. That was under Barack Obama. And the number continues to rise under Donald Trump.

U.S. commandos were doing covert operations in Niger under Barack Obama and they were there under Donald Trump. In some countries, these commandos are categorized as trainers or advisers — that’s what the U.S. called its troops that were deployed in the early stages of the Vietnam War, too, so take that phrase with a grain of salt. But these forces also conduct raids, drone strikes, assassinations, kidnappings — all manner of covert operations. And the only time we ever really hear about it is when U.S. personnel die, when journalists or human rights groups document civilian deaths, or as in the case of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, the U.S. wants to declare victory and celebrate the awesomeness of its commandos or its covert actions.

Some Democrats right now want to portray this situation in Niger as Trump’s Benghazi. But I think that’s a very bad comparison. In fact, Benghazi should not even be viewed as Obama or Hillary’s Benghazi. The real scandal here is that the U.S. does these operations all the time, all over the world, and we never pay any attention to it until something goes wrong, or, unless it’s valuable for propaganda purposes. The family of the four soldiers killed in Niger have a right to know why their loved ones died.

Sergeant La David Johnson’s widow has a right to know where her husband’s body was for two days and why it wasn’t recovered until then. In fact, all of us have a right to know the answer to that. But we also have a right to know why on earth the U.S. has commandos in a majority of the world’s countries. By just chasing each incident, where the CIA or the Joint Special Operations Command conducts an operation that we hear about instead of actually investigating the entire program, nothing’s ever going to change.

It’s the same bad apple theory from Abu Ghraib. “Oh, it was an anomaly. Just a few soldiers did it. We’ll prosecute the lowest ranking people and move on.” It’s the same thing. It’s like a cat chasing a ball of yarn in the room: you’re just focused on this one thing, but you’re losing sight of the big picture.

There’s a direct arc that stretches from George W. Bush through Barack Obama to Donald Trump of covert actions done in secrecy with little-to-no oversight by the U.S. Congress or the courts.

This entire system — the night raids, the drone strikes, the secret prisons, the snatching of people — all of it needs to be investigated and explained to the people. Niger won’t be the last of these. Not by a long shot. And part of the reason why is that the public is being taught to view these incidents as one-off disasters: Niger for Trump, Benghazi for Obama, and on, and on. This is now the American way of waging wars. There are U.S. troops positioned in 138-plus countries right now. What are they doing there? Who’s going to explain that? No one ever wants to touch that because then you need to ask questions about the fallacy of American exceptionalism and our nation’s addiction to militarism.

So, the outrage is often episodic and it’s used, particularly by politicians, to make short-term political points. Until Congress actually does its job and conducts an open, meaning public, and wide-ranging inquiry into what the hell the U.S. special operations forces are doing in 138 countries, or what the CIA is doing across the globe, then they’re not doing their jobs.

And that’s been the reality for a long, long time, under both Democrats and Republicans.

[Musical interlude]

JS: We’re going to kick off today’s show by taking a deep dive into the world of Vice President Mike Pence.

The great investigative journalist Jane Mayer has a fascinating exposé on Pence in the recent issue of The New Yorker magazine. The title of it is, “The Danger of President Mike Pence.”

Jane is one of the best journalists of our time and she was one of the first reporters to crack open the CIA torture and extraordinary rendition program under Bush and Cheney. She has written a number of books. Her latest work has focused on investigating the Koch brothers and other shady right-wing or Republican financiers. Her most recent book is called “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.” Jane Mayer joins me now.

Jane, welcome to Intercepted.

Jane Mayer: Thank you so much for having me.

JS: What I really found extraordinary about your piece is this notion of Mike Pence, not really as a principled conservative Christian, but as a real opportunist willing to set aside what he claimed were his bedrock principles in favor of whatever his kind of corporate paymasters or political expediency dictates he should do. Is that your sense?

JM: Yeah. And that was a surprise to me too. I mean, I think everybody had thought of him as kind of defining social conservatism and evangelical Christianity, and, in fact, what the reporting showed was that he’s very ambitious and he’s made his deals when he needs to.

And, in fact, his whole career really has been nurtured, supported, and sponsored by huge right-wing corporate interests. And I hadn’t realized that myself until I dug into it.

JS: There was a sense that Mike Pence was kind of this like shitty-magic-penny to buy the Christian right, sort of like calm with the idea of Trump being president.

JM: He definitely was. He was the bridge. He was the seal of good housekeeping that enabled the Christian right to come on board.

And, you know, but to go into your first question about the surprise of how ambitious he was and how willing he was to cut deals when he needed to, I mean it shouldn’t have been a surprise because the biggest deal and the biggest sort of Faustian bargain that he’s made was getting on the ticket with Donald Trump, who, of course, defines everything that Christian evangelicals say that they dislike, you know? His willingness to make that deal should have tipped everybody off.

JS: You were able to get some pretty powerful quotes or assertions from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. He, of course, is the Democratic senator from Rhode Island and one of the things that he said to you was that if Mike Pence were to become president, that the government would be run by the Koch brothers. Maybe you can unpack that and explain the connection between — because the Koch brothers aren’t known as fanatical Christian supremacists.

JM: No, I mean and, so, isn’t that interesting? The Koch’s are libertarians, or you could call them neoliberals. They are supposedly people who believe in kind of social liberalism. But there they are having sponsored the career of Mike Pence. And I think it’s a real tip off to what the Koch’s really care about.

The issue that matters to them is not any of the social issues, no matter what they’re saying. What matters to them is allowing business to take over the power in the country, and particularly their own business. So, they’re pushing back on regulations, and they’re pushing back on taxes and trying to shrink the power of the government and replace it with their own power.

And Mike Pence has been willing to carry their water on that. I hadn’t realized, despite writing “Dark Money,” a book about the Kochs, I hadn’t realized the extent to which they were working hand-in-glove with Pence and vice versa and how it began.

And it really goes back to 2009 in earnest. I mean it starts before then, in his working for think tanks that are funded by corporations and huge right-wing donors such as the Kochs.

But in 2009, there was a piece of legislation moving forward in Congress that was a huge threat to Koch Industries. And that was a tax on carbon pollution, something that would make the fossil fuel companies like Koch Industries pay for what they were doing to the environment.

And Pence really took up their cause in 2009, and he echoed their talking points. He took a petition that was created by the Koch’s main political group, Americans for Prosperity, and he got tons of signatures on it in Congress and eventually managed to help kill that bill in the Senate so it never happened. And also to kind of permanently align the Republican Party against doing anything to try to deal with climate change. That was a gift of major proportions to Koch Industries. That cemented his relationship with the Kochs, and they then started just pouring money into him.

They sponsored the next phases of his career and they really began to push for the idea of Pence himself becoming a presidential candidate and they were hoping it would come out that way. But Pence kind of screwed it up. He goes back to Indiana, becomes governor and he’s really a failure. And he makes decisions and takes positions that hurt him so much that he can’t run for president right away.

JS: You point out that Mike Pence was in Congress for twelve years and never, never once authored a successful bill. That’s kind of astonishing when you realize like this guy was basically a failure in getting any legislation passed. However, he used every platform he had, not to be good at that job, but to be kind of a shock troop for whoever his funders were or wherever the support was coming from that he thought would most put him in a prime position to gain national recognition or national power.

JM: He actually rose to a pretty high position in the leadership, the number three position of the Republican house, and he used that position also to push the Republican Party far, far, to the right.

So, you find him very early on supporting the rise of the Tea Party and speaking out at Tea Party rallies and talking about defunding the whole government. He wanted to defund Planned Parenthood or he was going to shut down the government, he said.

Mike Pence: We repealed Obamacare, lock, stock, and barrel on the floor of the House of Representatives. And we voted to cut spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels, defunding Obamacare and ending all public funding for Planned Parenthood of America. [audience cheers and applause] That’s what we voted.

JM: So, he’s taking these radical positions that, at the time, were considered shocking. But he’s part of this whole effort to push the Republican Party in line with its far-right economic interests and push it further and further to the right.

JS: I read your piece and I get the sense that he’s kind of this far-right wing, almost Manchurian Candidate, where it’s like they’ve programmed someone, you know, that can pass as kind of a Christian for the needs of convincing people that he’s with them. But really he seems to do whatever the Koch brothers tell him to right now, or whoever else is paying the bills.

JM: Well there is an economic, fiscal side of the conservatism he espouses and people hadn’t paid that much attention to it. And it’s just as radical as his views are on social issues.

You know, many of the people that work for him are people who come directly out of the Koch world. So, which to me was very interesting in part because I really believe that the reason that Trump was elected was because he broke with the orthodoxy of the far-right donors. They had moved so far away from the base that I think there was an opening for Trump to run on, to be more of a populist and to say things like “you need Social Security, you need Medicare.” These things were ideas that really appealed to the base of the Republican Party, and to many Americans who weren’t even that political.

And he also talked about the corruption of the government and how he was going to stick it to the big donors, and specifically stick it to the Kochs.

But he hasn’t done that. So I was interested in why. And, in particular, I think part of the reason is that he’s naive about government he has no experience in government, he’s bored by the details. And who is at his side who really does understand it? It’s Mike Pence.

And so, Mike Pence runs the transition and fills the Trump Administration with people who are really Koch people. And so even though Trump has run a campaign that’s populist, he’s running a government that is Koch-ian in its nature, and more, and more so. I mean we see it with the so-called tax reform plan.

Because you really got an infiltration going on in the Trump Administration by the big old-donor interests that have been trying to grab control for decades now.

JS: Talk about how Mike Pompeo ends up as CIA director and his connections to Pence and the Koch brothers.

JM: The reporting on this comes partly from a number of people I interviewed who were inside the transition team. And, one of them in particular was saying to me, “Mike Pompeo was not even on the radar for Trump. He wouldn’t have known him from anybody else.” Until like a couple days before he actually appointed him to be running the CIA. He came in, he had a nice interview with Trump, and like a day or two later was named to run the CIA.

He didn’t know — you know Trump wouldn’t have known where he came from. But where did he come from? He was the congressman from Wichita, Kansas. He was the Koch’s Congressman, someone whose business the Koch’s had helped support.

Within the Administration he and Mike Pence are very close. And Pence has hosted an evangelical Bible study group that’s for cabinet members and Pompeo often comes to it. And it’s led by a preacher named Ralph Drollinger who has been incredibly controversial. In California, he wrote some essays that suggested that women who served in the state legislature were sinners if they had children because they were leaving their children at home to do public service and that that was literally a sin.

Yeah, I mean, talk about someone who’s got sort of anti-female, old fashioned and almost dark age ideas of women, that would be Ralph Drollinger. And there he is because Pence sponsored him, running a Bible study group.

Though it’s interesting, there is a female member of it, too, someone who you’ve written about, Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, and she attends these sessions but presumably her children are not little and at home.

JS: You talked to Steve Bannon for this piece, which I thought was quite interesting that Bannon agreed to talk to you, although in some ways maybe not surprising because Bannon now is threatening to try to run Senate candidates against everybody except Ted Cruz. He’s his own particular kind of force. But Bannon was the big one who was saying, you know, the globalists inside the administration are the ones that Trump has to worry about and the globalists in the deep state. What were the insights you gained from Steve Bannon about everything that’s happened in the nine or ten months of Trump?

JM: Well I mean specifically what Bannon said to me I thought was just amazing which was: He feared that Pence would be a president who would be owned by the Kochs. The thing is that Bannon has long been a critic of the Koch brothers because Bannon sees himself as a new kind of nationalist populist and he sees the Kochs as hurting middle class people. And so, he’s in a different place. It’s not to say that he doesn’t have his own corporate sponsors — in fact, his biggest backer is Robert Mercer, the hedge fund magnate. But Mercer is more of a nationalist and a populist — I guess, to some extent, it’s hard to know.

But at any rate, Bannon comes out is as a critic of the sort of big corporate donors who he sees as pulling the party away from his people, the kind of working class and middle class white guys of the country.

JS: You know, one of the people that I’ve written a lot about, Erik Prince, is one of the names, the founder of the Blackwater mercenary company, one of the names that has been floated as a potential candidate on Bannon’s slate, if you will — possibly in Michigan, but it looks more likely in in Wyoming. And Erik Prince would regularly call into Steve Bannon’s radio show on Breitbart and pontificate on all sorts of issues.

Steve Bannon: Turn to Erik Prince. Give us, Erik, a professional in this area. If you want to take the fight to ISIS, if we want to destroy ISIS, if they’re the existential threat that they say they are to us, what do we do?

Erik Prince: Well, here’s what the Trump administration needs to do because I can’t imagine the Clinton administration contemplating actually ending the ISIS scourge. It’s not just a matter of cutting off the head of the snake, it’s about chewing up and destroying the entire snake.

JS: It’s sort of was like akin to like Bin Laden’s guys are dropping a tape off with Al Jazeera. Erik Prince would like call into Steve Bannon’s show. And I would imagine that Erik Prince fully has bought into Bannon’s kind of world view, you know, particularly when it comes to kind of right-wing, libertarian, populist nationalist tendencies. What’s your sense overall of what Bannon is doing right now, given that he’s become such a prominent figure and clearly has his own following?

JM: One of the things that Bannon has been fighting is what he calls the Empire Project and when he was in the White House, he was pushing back against the idea of sort of the endless war in endless number of countries, which he sees as taking the lives of too many of the kinds of people who he is championing. And he was trying to privatize some of these conflicts and reduce the defense spending, supposedly — I mean this was the idea.

And he so he was pushing the idea that is friend Erik Prince would use his private mercenary company to take over at least security in some of these projects, and the military was dead set against it and created huge fights, but that’s one place where the two of them are allied.

JS: Erik Prince also was a financier of Mike Pence’s political career. And, in fact, in 2004, in the aftermath of the Blackwater operatives being killed in Fallujah and strung up from the bridge, Mike Pence organized the welcome reception for Erik Prince on to Capitol Hill and that’s really when Erik Prince’s mercenary business took off. And it was Mike Pence that welcomed him there, which is interesting given that Pence and Bannon seemed to have been on the opposite ends of the spectrum ideologically within the Trump Administration. I would have thought that Pence would have also sort of, on this issue, joined forces with Bannon to say, “Hey, General Mattis, you should consider our buddy Erik Prince here and what he’s proposing.” So, that to me is fascinating —

JM: I actually don’t think, I think you’re on to something there. Because I don’t think that Pence was dead-set against Prince’s idea. Pence attends the principals committee meetings which are where, you know, that the most important foreign policy arguments take place within the White House. And my sense was, and I think Bannon said to me at some point, that Pence was no fan of what he called the “empire project,” meaning the sort of endless expansion of these wars, and that Pence was asking some tough questions about it.

That’s not to say that Pence was backing Prince particularly, either. I mean the thing about going back to the very beginning of the questions you raised, the thing about Pence is that he’s kind of weasel-y about many positions. You know he’s not someone who you see an incredibly strong backbone, who gets out front and tells, for instance, president Trump when he’s wrong. He’s very careful and very behind the scenes.

But anyway, so they may have had more common ground on that than people realize.

JS: Who brought Pence and Trump together and how did Pence end up on that ticket? JM: Well, to some extent, it was the Trump kids who really created that shotgun marriage, and according to the people that I was interviewing, Jared Kushner in particular had a longstanding family grievance against Chris Christie, who had prosecuted his father when Chris Christie was the U.S. attorney in New Jersey. And so there was kind of a personal beef there. But yet, Trump, it seems, really liked Christie and was kind of leaning that way. I actually interviewed Trump during that period and he sounded very torn and it turns out that even after Trump had had a sort of, what was supposed to have been the big coming together with Pence — they’d had dinner and then they’d had a family breakfast together and the Trump family kids came in and everybody was sort of on the same playbook and word came out that Pence was going to take the job, as he said, “in a heartbeat” — that very night, apparently, Trump called Chris Christie and continued sort of the romance and was saying, you know, “Are you ready?” And Christie said, “Ready for what?” And Trump said, “To do this thing with me.” And Christie said, “Are you asking?” And Trump sort of said, “Well, are you ready?” And, you know it was this kind of endless flirtation, and, “Stay by your phone,” Trump said to Christie.

It was like he couldn’t quite get himself to be comfortable with Pence. And even after they named to Pence publicly, Trump was still asking his advisers, you know, “Can I get out of this? Can I back out of it?” Now I got to be fair, though, to say since then, you know, Trump has been fully on board with Pence and considers it one of his best decisions, apparently, according to many people who I interviewed.

And the description he’s given about why he thinks Pence is so great what Pence was speaking at the Republican National Convention. And I talked to Newt Gingrich who was behind the scenes talking to Trump when Pence was speaking, and Trump turned to him and said, “Isn’t he perfect? He looks like he was sent by central casting.” So, Trump loves the way Pence looks like a vice president.

JS: Well that sounds like the thing you’re really looking for, someone that just looks like a vice president. However, it underscores something that another historian you interviewed said that Pence is basically the sycophant-in-chief. He really is used by Trump on a regular basis. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a vice president carted out as though he’s at a pep rally to introduce the president anywhere near the numbers that Trump has carted Pence out. It’s almost like he puts him in this position that’s intended to say, “Here’s my carnival barker or here’s my hype man that’s going to come out for a couple minutes and then the real king shows up.”

JM: You know, one of the people I talked to, I tried to speak to some former vice presidents, and one in particular, Walter Mondale, found it so demeaning because Mondale actually tried to negotiate a contract when he became vice president with Jimmy Carter to make the role into a more substantial role, and something that’s more dignified. But he’s watching Pence, and he said to me, “You know: what’s he doing? I ask myself every day.” And he was, he looks at Pence as sort of acting like an emcee for the president, you know?

And it’s not stupid; it’s shrewd. He is the member of the White House team that has not gotten in trouble, as far as we know, with the president. He knows that the president likes to be flattered, and you know, you can see, probably biding his time. And that’s why I ended the piece with the quote from the Bible that Pence keeps over his mantle in the vice-presidential residence, which talks about how God has his future in mind.

JS: Mike Pence seems to have also been put in a position, particularly with the General Flynn situation, where either he was being lied to and then was sent to the wolves, basically, to repeat the lie in public, or he did know and took a bullet essentially for the president’s reputation, or the reputation of the Administration. Is that your sense?

JM: I mean it’s hard to know for sure. There’s one meeting that would clarify the answer to that and we don’t know exactly what happened there. But Pence was in a meeting at the White House when Trump announced that he wanted to get rid of James Comey, as the head of the FBI and he was angry about Comey doing an investigation into him, and the Russian ties. And they cooked up the idea that they would get the Justice Department to go out front and recommend that he get rid of Comey, and that would give him some cover to do it. And it wouldn’t just look like obstruction of justice.

And Pence was in that meeting, but until we really know what he said, what he heard, what the conversation was like, it’s very hard to know for sure whether he was, you know, party to obstruction or whether somehow he absented himself at the right moments. It’s just really hard to know.

But any rate he came out and said:

MP: Let me be very clear that the president’s decision to accept the recommendation of the Deputy Attorney General and the Attorney General to remove Director Comey as the head of the FBI was based solely and exclusively on his commitment to the best interest of the American people.

JM: There were a few little weasel words there that give him some outs, but he basically spread the party line that gave the president cover and then of course the president came out just a few hours later and said:

Donald J. Trump: He’s a showboat. He’s a grandstander. I was going to fire Comey. My decision. There’s no good time to do it, by the way.

JM: Which left Pence out there looking like a, you know, complete chump, or a liar, and I think you have to know more before you can really say for sure, and I think we may know more at some point because I think Mueller’s going to go into that meeting very carefully and hopefully it will be more transparent and then we’ll see.

JM: There’s a level of arrogance about the Russia investigation, specifically on Trump’s part that he you know he himself has this arrogance about it, where either he knows that there’s nothing there that’s going to stick or he just seems to believe that he’ll be able to weather it with his Twitter account and by lying — I mean what’s your sense of what’s going to happen there. I mean are they going to get something to stick to Trump himself?

JM: Who knows? I mean I’m not like in the prediction business. But I did interview Tony Schwartz who wrote “The Art of the Deal” for Trump, and one of the things he talks about is how for Trump, truth is so malleable. You know, he doesn’t care really, what’s true, what’s not true, what should be true — it’s all kind of the same for him.

JS: Well, that’s not how the courts work, though.

JM: No, it’s not. It seems like at the moment you know Mueller is pushing very hard against Paul Manafort, and probably against General Mike Flynn, that seems to be where he’s most likely to find sort of legal violations. But there is the possibility of an obstruction case here: obstruction by Trump, and potentially obstruction by Pence, neither of them are off the hook.

I mean, one thing I can say about being a Washington reporter for The New Yorker is there’s not been a single uninteresting day these days.

JS: Jane Mayer we’re going to leave it there. Thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.

JM: Great to be with you. Thanks so much, Jeremy.

JS: Jane Mayer is an investigative journalist at the New Yorker Magazine. Her latest piece is called The Danger of President Mike Pence, and her most recent book is “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.”

You are listening to Intercepted. When we come back, we’re going to talk to the famed Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei. He has an incredible new documentary film called Human Flow.

And we’re also going to be talking to the drummer of the band Deerhoof, and we’re going to hear some new music from them. Stay with us.

[Musical interlude]

JS: Hey, everybody, this is Jeremy again. And I am not going to take up much of your time. I just want to remind you that we are in the midst of our fundraising drive here, our membership support drive for this podcast, for Intercepted. And we would be honored if you’d join the ranks of the 1,600 or so people who have already become sustaining members of Intercepted. You can do that by going to the Our goal is to try to get over 2,000 members this year that have become sustaining supporters of this program.

We are just blown away by the level of support that we’ve already been offered and we are so close to that goal that we’ve set for ourselves of 2,000 members, sustaining members, of Intercepted by the end of this calendar year.

If you’re out there and you appreciate the show, when you are in a financial position to support this program, particularly for someone or some people who aren’t in a financial position to support it, your donation to this show keeps it free for everyone to listen to. Maybe you want to send a pledge note on behalf of a person in your life, or a group that is engaged in a social justice struggle in your local community. Maybe you want to do a challenge grant where you pool together with some friends and you pool your resources and you say, “We’ll match dollar for dollar any contributions under this mission, up to $2,000 dollars or up to $5,000.” Whatever level you can pledge, we really appreciate it.

Once again, I’ll shut up. Back to the show.

[Musical interlude]

JS: And we are back here on Intercepted. When the refugee crisis on Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere is discussed in the U.S. media, it’s often portrayed simply as masses of people fleeing the violence of groups like ISIS or al Qaeda or al Shabaab.

But U.S. military actions, including the intense bombings that have taken place in a number of countries, under both president Obama and president Trump have played a major role in creating the conditions that have forced so many people to flee. Not just ISIS, not just al Qaeda, but the United States government. So, too, has the U.S. government and corporate support for dictators around the world. Support for repressive security forces and this massive flow of arms sales, both illicit and perfectly legal.

Add to this, then, the increasingly deadly role that Russian forces are playing, particularly in Syria, and the world is witnessing a horrifying spike in the number of people documented to have been forcibly displaced from their homes. More than 65 million people according to the United Nations. From Syria, to South Sudan and Central America’s northern triangle, more people than ever are fleeing violence, persecution, human rights abuses that are caused by their own governments, by terror groups and by outside forces. Like the United States, or Iran, or Russia. They’re also escaping the sometimes-lethal impact of climate change.

At the same time, political powers across the world, including in the United States and Europe, are building more walls or proposing the building of more walls, implementing harsh anti-immigrant and anti-refugee policies.

At the same time, far-right politicians are using the refugee crisis to incite xenophobic fears which then can lead to hate crimes.

Chinese artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei has spent his entire adult life under the watch of Chinese intelligence and security forces. And he’s widely viewed as one of the most well-known dissidents in China.

Ai Weiwei has a new film out that paints a harrowing portrait of the scale of these mass migrations that we’re witnessing. The film is called Human Flow. And he timed the film’s release with a gigantic public installation of his artworks throughout New York City. It’s called “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.” From a golden cage in New York’s Central Park, to fences erected at bus stops, and two hundred photographs from refugee camps, Ai Weiwei’s migrant-themed works around New York City forced their way into high traffic areas to disrupt the flow of people.

Well, Intercepted’s production assistant Elise Swain spoke to onlookers at one of those installations in Washington Square Park. Here’s what people had to say about what they saw and felt being next to the artwork.

Bystander 1: So, it looks like a giant bird cage in the middle of the Washington Square Park arch, and at the bottom of the bird cage, about halfway through in the center, is a cutout mirrored on the inside.

Bystander 2: It’s really beautiful. I think when you stand back, it does look like two people, for me personally.

Bystander 3: To me, it looks like maybe two people, or maybe one person with a backpack on.

Bystander 4: Like, this nice silhouette, if you were a human being, or more of one human being, walking like in a tunnel all together, we were all like squeezing, coming through.

Bystander 5: When you go inside it, you see your reflection, but you’re like – you’re distorted.

Bystander 6: But I think that reflection is pretty cool in terms of not only us feeling like there’s other people who are going through hell in their countries —

Bystander 7: This is the age of people like putting fences to prevent people from like crossing borders.

Bystander 6: And have to be in a cage for some reason as a protection of this crazy world we live in.

Bystander 8: Confinement. That’s what I think the cage is. Because I’ve been in cages before. So —

Elise Swain: It’s not a good feeling.

Bystander 8: Hell no!

JS: Ai Weiwei’s new film, Human Flow, is playing in cities across the United States and soon will be launching globally. And he joins us now. Ai Weiwei, welcome to Intercepted.

Ai Weiwei: Thank you.

JS: This is such an important film. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that has portrayed, in a human way, the idea of numbers and mass forced migration. When you set out to make this film, was that part of what you were trying to make real to people who are not there?

AW: At the very beginning, I was very frustrated by the situation and have almost no knowledge about what the refugees were about, so I jumped in and started with my iPhone to shooting the people getting off the shore from the Syrian war. And I realize this is going to be a large task to take, and, you know, it is always such a complexity.

Human Flow: This extraordinary event that has unfolded has also impacted Europe in many ways. We’re here right now on Lesbos Island. This is the point when 1/2 a million people, most of them refugees, set foot and entered Europe, an extraordinary way that people have been coming through. In just the last year alone, over 1 million have come to Europe through the Mediterranean Sea.

And although these are movements that we haven’t seen in decades, in fact, it hasn’t been since the Second World War that so many have fled and come to Europe. It’s still something that we need to consider in the global context, where so many millions are actually displaced.

AW: So, it ended up we travelled in 23 nations, 40 camps, and interviewed 600 people. And come with 900 hours of footage. And the situation grows very dramatically. You have to do several locations at the same time.

JS: Now the film doesn’t really have recurring characters. You return to the scene, for instance, on the Macedonian border. How did you decide how to tell that story?

AW: I guess most refugee films are really focused on an individual character or a family or, you know, a story. As artists, you can have a painting or you can have a photograph or you can have something, you know, more abstract, or in between. Sometimes it gets very large scale, and sometimes very intimate details. So, it’s a collage. It’s — I would say it’s like a broken mirror. You have a lot of fragmentary flecks, angles about the reality.

JS: On a human level, how did it affect you? Not just what you showed on camera, because you’re filming with your phone and you’re also being filmed, but if you ignore the cameras, just as a human being, what was it like for you to witness what you saw and to be among these people that are forced from their homes?

AW: I was also a kind-of refugee. My father was exiled as an anti-revolutionary poet.

And I grew up with him in 20 years in very hard conditions. So, when I met those people, they’re so familiar, whatever they do there. You know, their condition. They’re, they’re both physically and mentally can see myself in them or see them in myself. So, it’s easy for me to communicate and to take part of this whole production.

JS: One of the, the lighter moments in the film. You’re buying mandarins, or oranges, on the back of the — from a guy on the back of a truck, it looks like, or at a table. And my perception of it was that you were, you knew that he was overcharging you kind of, in a very interesting way, negotiated with him. I used that sort of as a metaphor for how these people are being ripped off, in general. Was that at all what you were doing with that?

AW: Yeah. I think we carefully selected a part, and to have myself in my interaction with them is always serving some purpose, like, I try to pick up this fruit, rather than the other one, he’s trying to give me some of what he wants to give to me. And it’s very much like selections of refugees in the European process, and also he kind of thought my money could be fake, he look at the — to examine the money. So, all of those instances, it’s very little, but it shows a quality or intention about this kind of distrust, or selectively to always chose in those situations.

JS: You portray, in a very strong way, by using the Macedonian border when the European Union countries started shutting it down. Talk about that particular camp that you were in on the Macedonian border and the fate of the people that were there. Why did they come there and what happened?

AW: Most refugees when they landed on Greece, Greece is not a country they want to be in. They want to go to Germany or Sweden or, you know, all those nations already have more open attitude, or maybe better conditions for working.

So they have look, walking across this so-called Balkan Road. So, the Macedonian border, between Greece, is the place where they’re being stopped. You know, they suddenly shut off the fence, the door, and all people, the flow stops there.

So, accumulated about 13-14,000 people for months without an explanation, or even, it’s very limited life support. So that’s why we paid a lot of attention to the condition.

Human Flow Clip: The officials came here. And told them, “Look, there’s no way you’re going to get papers to continue, so you’re going to be deported. Either you go voluntarily or we arrest you.” And yesterday it started with police coming here and actively arresting people. There are very afraid of being brought back. I mean there’s a reason why these people are here.

JS: You know the president of the United States, he’s a big fan of building walls and fences.

AW: And also, not only building walls, but also going to push away many immigrants that have been living in the United States for decades, or even born here. Many of them even contributed to the U.S. economy. You know, they do jobs nobody wants to do. And so those people are going to be pushed away by the new policy, and he has this travelling ban also.

DJT: Donald J. Trumps is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.

AW: And also, the U.S. accepts very little amount of refugees. You really think, it’s kind of shameful for such a big nation, powerful nation, the most powerful nation on the earth, but rather not bear the responsibility — do not have the vision, do not have the leadership in dealing with a humanitarian crisis.

JS: What’s your biggest concern in China right now when it comes to basic liberties?

AW: China has been establishing this new government for sixty-eight years. But still, they never trust it’s own people they never let them vote. They don’t have independent judicial system, and the Army doesn’t belong to the country, but it belongs to the party. And also they don’t have an independent media, you know, it’s always under very heavy censorship, every aspect. And I don’t know how long they can survive that way, but they have always been like that.

JS: Are you personally still facing surveillance and monitoring when you’re inside China?

AW: Oh yes, when I’m inside China, I should be the most watched person, or under the most surveillance, strongest surveillance possible, because that’s what they do. And they still see me as a potential dangerous person.

JS: When you just think about it on a basic level, why are they so afraid of you?

AW: I think I present or reflect this notion of freedom. Individual freedom, and the freedom of speech, and also about creativity, are really questionable in this totalitarian society which really threatens the fundamental possibility for them to stay.

JS: What were your thoughts when it became clear that Donald Trump had won the election and was going to be president of the United States. What was your immediate sort of thought about him?

AW: It’s the kind of natural outcome of long years, giving up a political consciousness in a general sense. You know, the U.S. has been — or, not only the U.S., but also Europe has been in peaceful time for decades. And they enjoyed this kind of huge prosperity. But at the same time, intellectually, had given up true ideas or thinking about what globalization is about. So, then, it’s very easy to be used by politicians. For me, it’s not a surprise. Because you can see many, many places in Europe, also, have this kind of trend or tendency to have a far-right moment and come to power.

JS: When you think about the Chinese government, do you think of it in terms of left wing or right wing?

AW: I think they are all the time right wing. There’s no left wing. Also, there’s no left-wing movement in the society, because, yes, there’s a few figures, which reflect this kind of fight, but it can never be a movement in terms of thinking or argument. You know, there’s no arguing. Whoever comes out is going to be immediately put in jail, or, you know, has no chance.

JS: China is such a powerful capitalist economy and is making so much of the goods for the United States and no one ever talks about the human rights in China. Trump just talks about, “China is ripping us off financially.” But the U.S. economy, in large part, runs because of cheap Chinese labor that has at its center no workers’ rights and terrible working conditions. But, in this country, when no one is talking about that, except here and there sometimes you have it. But artists sometimes talk about it, occasionally an article is written, but the main focus on China and the United States is: China’s becoming very powerful and they’re ripping us off financially.

AW: I think this is since not only this administration, but the previous ones. They enjoy the deals that are made in China, and the profit, and they benefit is huge, because it exploits those nations who don’t have human rights, you know? In many senses, it only can be done when the people as in this kind of situation, they ruin partially by doing this kind of business here ruins the human rights condition and also the environmental pollution is everywhere in China. Food, water, and education is pretty bag, and the government is completely corrupted.

So, of course, the U.S. very clearly knows that, and they enjoy that, you know?

JS: Right and it’s part of why the United States is able to do what it does in the world, is because they don’t care about those issues.

AW: Yeah. It’s true. It survives because those nations function like that.

JS: As I’ve followed your work over the years, and I always find it so fascinating that you’re perceived as a threat because it feels like the reaction of the Chinese state to you is like from a different era. Like, they’re making you more powerful, more influential because they’re targeting you. And it’s like: why don’t they get that? That their action against you elevates your platform? Are you that big of a threat to them?

AW: I think fundamentally I’m a big threat to any power because I’m questioning the essence of why they’re there, and it’s a very harsh argument and a threat to their existence. But they also sense it because I represent, it’s not me, but I represent the new intention to make a change.

JS: Why do you like working with your phone as vehicle for shooting video?

AW: It’s just coming into — I think for artists, you conceptually are always very clear what kind of image you want, and also, you know, you think anything can make an image which can be powerful. That doesn’t have to be super-high quality cameras, which exist everywhere now, but it also can be a simple gesture, or close-range shooting, because filming is almost like a street fight. If you really street fight, you don’t need some powerful weapons. You maybe — you grab a sand, you use sand you have a brick, you use a brick. It’s really about the moment, and that little thing you have to capture, you know?

JS: When you’re in the United States and you’re traveling around, what’s the vibe that you feel? I’m sure it’s different in different places but how does it feel in this country?

AW: After being back to China from the United States for 20-some years, 24 years, then come back to Europe and the United States, I think this world is really, we are living in different worlds. And, if you go to South America, if you go to Africa, if you go the Middle East, it is really — we are really living in several different kinds of worlds.

And generally speaking, the people living here are quite spoiled, because of longtime lacking of any kind of challenge, and I think challenge is necessary for, for a nation or an individual. Without challenge, we all become spoiled.

JS: What do you think should be done with all of these people that have had to flee their homes in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia? What would a human response look like to any of this?

AW: I think there are several levels that need to be done. One, is at the top, political level, globally, those leaderships, the powerful nations, they should make a decision to stop the war. You know? To stop the famine, which is not difficult. All those wars, represents the interests from others. As we all know, if we look at the top lists of who is selling those weapons and to whom, you know? It’s just, like, if you follow the money, then you see how this world is moving.

So, the U.S. certainly bears major responsibility in this matter, if you talk about the Iraq war, still, after decades, still Iraq is such a broken state, and they’re still fighting.

JS: And Turkey. I mean the United States sold enormous quantities of weapons and military to Turkey to massacre and expel Kurds.

AW: Yes, Turkey also is a very unstable situation. And many, many nations, it’s not just one or two. And, also in Syria, has all foreign involvement in there, so makes that well, 100,000 people as casualties, and pushes a few million people out. So, if we can’t stop those wars, and continuously build arms and we’re selling arms, what do you expect? All of those are made for killing people. I think the U.S. has been pulling down the bombs, larger than ever.

JS: Yeah, Trump just used this huge bomb, that they called the MOAB, in Afghanistan. They were bragging about how great this big bomb was.

AW: Yeah. So, you can see people celebrating those killings, and also not talk about nuclear warfare. Those potential dangerous threats to humanities are always there, if they have any sincerity or care, they should just dismiss all those nuclear bombs. Now, why we need to have it — who do they want to kill with those devastating weapons?

JS: Whose work right now do you respect or do you pay attention to, either artists or writers, musicians?

AW: Sorry to say, I am very much interested in the artist, his name is Ai Weiwei, that’s who I pay full attention to.

JS: Alright. Fair enough. Ai Weiwei, thank you very much for joining us.

AW: Thank you.

JS: Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist and political dissident. His documentary, human flow, is out now, and his installations in New York City will be up until February 11th of 2018.

[Musical interlude]

JS: After more than two decades of being a band, the veteran indie rock quartet Deerhoof thought they’d try something different. Two weeks before their fourteenth LP, Mountain Moves, was set to drop, they surprise released it on their website at a pay-what-you-want price. The entirety of the proceeds were then donated to the Emergent Fund, a nonprofit that benefits campaigns whose missions are to defend the rights of vulnerable communities.

It could be said that the unpredictability of Deerhoof is both an ode to their solidly leftist do-it-yourself principles and idiosyncratic music, which seems to joyfully gallop between art pop and punk, and is something entirely of their own vibrant creation.

[“Mountain Moves” by Deerhoof]

JS: Our producer Jack D’Isidoro spoke with Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier about the songs of Mountain Moves, and the power of creativity during the Trump moment.

Greg Saunier: This is Greg, the drummer from Deerhoof. Yes, I would say that on Mountain Moves, maybe we were trying to be political with the songs. But we’ve had a lot of songs about war, a lot of songs about immigration. Our singer Satomi Matsuzaki is a first-generation immigrant from Japan to the U.S.

It’s like we’d like to make music that would make a person want to sit up straight, and like give them some energy, give them some strength, when there are many things in their day-to-day existence that are not only sapping their energy, but meant to sap their energy. There’s an economy of hopelessness, of producing hopelessness, that people are making money by creating hopelessness, creating a feeling of being overwhelmed and feeling that to even envision something better than what we have is completely preposterous and unrealistic and should be abandoned immediately.

[“Your Dystopic Creation Doesn’t Fear You” by Deerhoof]

“Your Dystopic Creation Doesn’t Fear You” is kind of, I don’t know, I just remember how much fear-mongering was the strategy of both parties. Both candidates were simply trying to scare people into voting for them by saying how scary it’s going to be if the other person is president.

And I felt that our intelligence was being insulted 24 hours a day, for months, and being projected at maximum volume by the corporate media.

[“Your Dystopic Creation Doesn’t Fear You” by Deerhoof]

GS: “I Will Spite Survive.” You know, obviously it’s kind of a joke on the, “I Will Survive,” the disco-era hit. I mean that song was chorus like a kind of anthem about surviving a bad breakup. This one is more like meant to be a kind of anthem about surviving a government, that, depending on who you are, would prefer you to be dead. If you’re someone who’s sick or injured, it’d be better if you would die. If you are the wrong race or wrong religion, it would be better if you were dead. And if you can survive long enough for the people currently flush with wealth and power to, themselves, pass away, then there’s some hope that the future may be better.

And so, it’s kind of a message to them to please stay strong and stay alive if you can. So, anyway, here’s that song: “I Will Spite Survive.”

[“I Will Spite Survive” by Deerhoof]

You could outlive your executioners

You could outlive your executioners

You could outlive your executioners

You could outlive your executioners

But you’re on TV, you’re expendable

But you’re on TV, you’re expendable

Sleep at night, if you can stay alive

Sleep at night, if you can stay alive

Stay alive, if you can sleep at night

Stay alive, if you can sleep at night

City breaks, if you can stay awake

Let her dance, all night long!

You could outlive your executioners

You could outlive your executioners

But you’re on TV, you’re expendable

But you’re on TV, you’re expendable

Sleep at night, if you can stay alive

Sleep at night, if you can stay alive

Stay alive, if you can sleep at night

Stay alive, if you can sleep at night

City breaks, if you can stay awake

Outlive your executioners

Outlive your executioners

Outlive your executioners

JS: That was “I Will Spite Survive” by the band Deerhoof and if you go to our episode page, we have an exclusive first look at their music video for the song. You can check it out at

And that does it for this week’s show. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We’re distributed by Panoply.

Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro, and our Executive Producer is Leital Molad. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Laura Flynn is our associate producer. Elise Swain is our production assistant and graphic designer. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.

Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.

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